Kenya: Groove

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

We’re in the groove – more or less. Vehicle transects have been driven, foot transects walked, rangers introduced to our Cybertracker data recording app, with some taking to it like ducks to water and others less so. We have also checked camera traps (results later), where we could find them, been on night drives (for fun and a bit of data recording) and started waterhole observations, which presented their very own set of challenges (see below) 😉

We’ve recorded lions, hyaenas, civets, giraffe, topi, dik-dik, duiker, zebra, buffalo, impala, waterbuck, eland and much more. Cheetahs have been seen in the study site, but not yet caught during the surveys. The elephants are making themselves scarce and are elsewhere in the Mara. The leopards are elusive, as they tend to be.

The first star of the expedition has been awarded for Germanification of the daily activities grid. Roland has put in a heroic effort to get the Cybertracker data transfer working reliably. The team continues to work hard and diligently, so the data are flooding in, putting a smile on Rebekah’s face.

Beaming too is the sun over the Mara. Our 06:00 breakfasts are chilly with lots of jacket and hat-clad people going about their business with quiet confidence now, packing up equipment and getting ready to head out. As the sun crests over the Mara, engines fire up and people leave to their destinations, be it a waterhole, a ranger pick-up point or a transect. A couple of hours into our survey work, the jackets come off and the suncream comes on for us muzungus. By lunchtime the sun is high and hot and, the siesta until 15:00 appreciated, ready for another round of activities in the afternoon. This is an expedition after all, not a bloody holiday!

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Kenya: Trailblazers

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Team 1 has arrived. Trailblazers we called them and trailblazers they are. Missing baggage, northern accents, naughty dogs, long hours or data-collection apps on mobiles don’t faze them.

Two days, some Teutonic organisation, plenty of laminating sheets (great thing we have so many) is all it took to get them up to speed and convert them into citizen scientists and 4×4 fiends.

So on day three, as the sun shines and the Mara bursts with life, they are already out on their second vehicle transect – spotting, recording, off-roading and beavering away in a very sciency way.

Now all we need is for inseparable K&J to be less smelly, J&D to sing, R&E to restart their phones, B&Y to train the rangers, R&R to relax, J to take over, G to order the driver to continue, S to continue chauffeuring and N to find some Wellingtons, and we’ll be in expedition heaven.

But, no really, well done team 1 so far! You are creating big boots to fill.

First three days
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Kenya: Groove, sort of

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Baggage: arrived. Roland: arrived. Cars: fixed, sort of. Preparations: finished. Team: missing. That’s our status here in Enonkishu.

There’s been lots of changes over the last three years, so group 1, you will be our trailblazers. Bear with us, work with us and get us in the groove. Remember it’s a team effort and we’re here to lead, not to serve or nanny you. So, I hope you have:

  • a copy of the field manual ready for your own use (essential for your work)
  • downloaded the Cybertracker app (essential for your work)
  • downloaded the Earth app (new, essential for your work, see below)
  • downloaded the BirdLasser app (not essential, only if you are really into your birds)
  • downloaded the iNaturalist app (not essential, only if you are really into your natural history)

We’ve decided to use Earth for on-site navigation, so please download the app. If you’re into things like that, you can also import into Earth three files and have a play. We will send you these files and also some others so that you know what’s coming 😉 If you are not into this, then don’t worry, we will explain everything on site and get you set up once you are here.

Roland and I will be driving to Nairobi in a minute. See you there at 08:00 tomorrow, group 1.

Continue reading “Kenya: Groove, sort of”

Kenya: Stutter start

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Matthias and I are off to a stutter start of our Kenya biodiversity volunteer expedition.

First, our baggage (with important expedition equipment) did not make it to Nairobi. So far Kenyan Airways have proved incompetent in even locating it. Then our first hire 4×4 broke down after 5 km and we had to leave it with the mechanics. The second just made it to Enonkishu before the clutch gave in. Thank you very much Market Car Hire! And on the way, we were harassed by a greedy and self-important policeman.

But we got there in the end and it is good to be back. Lots of changes. More wildlife, more people, more rain. Lots of work to do. New (very good) cook!

Rebekah, our local scientist, has been busy devising our surveys, now in three conservancies rather than one (see photos, all to be explained during training when you get here). We in turn have busied ourselves with paperwork and setup. Replacement cars are here and we hope this will be breakdowns and police harassment out of the way for the expedition, but don’t hold your breath.

The Mara is as beautiful and welcoming as ever. It’s a bit chilly in the morning (jacket or long sleeves required), but gets hot by mid-day, cooling off in the evening. As I type this, rain is gently pattering on the tin roof and vervet monkeys are playing in the trees nearby, sounding like elephants when they venture on the wet tin roof. Tonight the hippos will be grunting us to sleep as they always do. Sweet dreams and safe travels group 1. See you on Sunday. One more diary before then, perhaps.

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Kenya: Let’s go

Update from our Africa volunteer project working on the Big Five and biodiversity in the Maasai Mara of Kenya

Welcome to the Kenya 2023 diary. I am Johnny Adams, your expedition leader.

We look forward to returning to Kenya and Enonkishu Conservancy after a pandemic-enforced absence of two years. In fact, our Kenya expedition in February 2020 was the last expedition that ran before the pandemic hit us all. So now we are full circle and keen to go again.

I will be flying to Nairobi on Sunday to set up for you. With me will be our founder and executive director Dr. Matthias Hammer, who will be there for setup and probably part of group 1. Helping us in Kenya will be Rebekah Karimi, erstwhile conservation manager of Enonkishu Conservancy and our first local scientist when we started this expedition back in 2019, as well as Roland Arniston, who will act as expedition scientist this year, alongside Rebekah.

I’ll be in touch again from the ground in Kenya next week, but first here are some tasks for you citizen scientist in preparation for the expedition:

  1. Please download the expedition field guide & manual 2023 and make sure you bring a copy with you on the expedition (hardcopy or softcopy on a tablet are fine). The more you can study and swot up on this now, the easier you will find the training on the ground, so please invest some time now, if you can.
  2. We will be using Cybertracker for much of the data recording. Please can you download this to your mobile phone and familiarise yourself with the app. The app works best when connected to the internet, so either please buy a Safaricom SIM card on arrival (this provider works best in the study site) or make sure you have a roaming agreement for Kenya with your provider at home. You can easily pick up Safaricom SIM cards at the airport, just after exiting arrivals.

Otherwise, I hope your preparations are going well. You’ll hear from me again in a week or so.

And finally, here are some photos and videos of the last expedition in 2020 to get you in the spirit of things.

Best wishes

Johnny Adams
Expedition leader

Continue reading “Kenya: Let’s go”

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

Hello everyone

With a week to go before the expeditions starts, it’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader in South Africa this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this project.

I am not on route yet, but I am in the midst of preparations. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, and Dr. Alan Lee, our project scientist for the duration of the expedition. It’s great to be returning to work with Alan (and his family) for a third year. I’ll save the rest of the introductions until later next week, so they are fresh in your memory.

Craig (front) and Alan (back)

I am guessing many of you, like me, are in a whirl of preparation and beginning to think about packing your bags. So I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in my adopted home – Scotland!

Hopefully you have also seen the recently published 2016 South Africa expedition report, so will have an idea of some of the planned activities. This also is my opportunity to flag up our expanding bat survey work. As this year, in the spirit of citizen science, we are hoping to turn your iPad or iPhone (if you are travelling with them) into a bat detector.

I’ll leave you to continue your preparations and will be in touch later this week from South Africa. I look forward to meeting group 1 next weekend.

Safe travels…

Craig
Expedition leader

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

Buttonquail steals the show

An international team of citizen scientists, working on a conservation project in South Africa recently completed a world first – capturing a Hottentot buttonquail (Turnix hottentottus). This is remarkable, because this species, considered to be endemic to the fynbos biome of South Africa, has never been caught before.

It is also a species of some mystery, with limited and variable knowledge regarding its ecology and conservation status. The Hottentot buttonquail is one of 18 species of Turnicidae; a group of cryptic, small, terrestrial birds probably best known for their polyandrous breeding systems.

There has been little consensus over the last 30 years as to the conservation status and taxonomy of the animal. Taxonomically the species was considered conspecific with the black-rumped Buttonquail, while now they are considered a separate species. From the conservation perspective, the species has variously been described as: ‘on the brink of extinction’; ‘possibly extinct’; ‘possibly critically endangered’, while at the same time it was classified as ‘Least Concern’ globally; and as of 2014 ‘Endangered’ both globally and nationally.

Clearly there is still much to learn about this species. Project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee is on a quest to advance the knowledge of this species. In addition to undertaking a range-wide population assessment of the species, Dr. Lee has been keen to mist-net and capture an individual so basic biometric information can be taken. This will permit telemetry collars to be fitted to this species so we can better understand their biology, ecology and inform conservation action.

On capturing the first individual at Blue Hill Nature Reserve, in the Western Cape, Dr. Lee said ‘I am delighted. I have been mist-netting and ringing birds since 2011, with over 7000 birds caught, and this was the first Hottentot buttonquail, not just caught by me, but by anyone. Clearly it wouldn’t have been possible without the collective efforts of the Biosphere Expeditions team’.

Biosphere Expeditions leader, Dr. Craig Turner stated ‘what a highlight for any expedition. Our volunteer teams want to contribute to worthwhile conservation science, but perhaps never imagined they could achieve a world first’.

Dr. Lee is soon to publish a range-wide study assessing the population and distribution of the Hottentot buttonquail, and then will pursue to use of telemetry collars to better understand this over-looked species.

Here are now also the highlights of the photos and videos you all shared (thank you).


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

That’s all folks. Our time on expedition has come to an end. Our volunteers have departed, the kit is packed and now Alan and I must head our separate ways. First we must convoy south to return our Ford Rangers (thank you again Ford South Africa!). I then have to make the migration north to Scotland, and Alan to Senegal to present some of his research. The science never stops!

I can hardly believe our second expedition in South Africa is already over. Let me start by thanking our team. First off, our volunteers; the joy of expeditions is working with a bunch of liked-minded people towards a common goal – we’ve had a fantastic group and you’ve all made a great contribution (which I’ll expand on in a moment). But firstly we owe a huge thank you to Melda and Gurli, for the continual provision of culinary delights, and their botanical wisdom! We would also like to thank the extended Lee family (Anja, Elli, Charlie, Chris & Elaine) for their boundless hospitality. And finally, our enormous collective thanks go to Alan, our leader in all things scientific. It has again been a fantastic privilege to share in your world and work with such a passionate scientist.

So what about that contribution I mentioned? Well, the stats are staggering, over 50 litres of wine drunk, in excess 130 chocolate bars eaten, and numerous cups of tea and coffee consumed, and we still managed to complete all the fieldwork. Of course data still need to be crunched from the various field surveys and just think of all those new camera traps still clicking and collecting data….long beyond our departure.

But in case you have forgotten, here are just some of our highlights:

Several new camera traps have been deployed across the Blue Hill area (and many others serviced) to monitor leopard, caracal and other mammal activity and movement patterns.

Nearly 3000 camera images from Blue Hill have be analysed, identified and catalogued, revealing activity of leopards, caracals and African wildcats across a number of locations.

Over 20 kms of flush transects surveys have been completed across the Blue Hill area.

Several mist netting surveys have been completed providing more data on several endemic and range-restricted bird species.

We completed yet another round of small mammal trapping surveys.

We identified the location of more Cape rockjumper nests (a bird endemic to the Fynbos).

We have identified at least another two new species of bat in the research area (bringing the total to seve) and additional cave roosts of the Cape horseshoe bat have been identified.

The team have contributed to pioneering and ongoing research of Matt Macray into the impact of electric fences on tortoise species. This is going to be a ground-breaking study highlighting the devastating impacts on a species, which poses no threat to any other animal.

And finally, the Hottentot buttonquail……

Alan has been catching and ringing birds at Blue Hill since 2011, and in that time he has caught over 7,000 birds but not a single Hottentot buttonquail. But neither has anyone else caught one, ever, anywhere. Biosphere Expeditions volunteers have been instrumental in changing that, and helping to influence our understanding of this endangered, range-restricted fynbos endemic bird.

 

 

No matter whether you are a volunteer, scientist or expedition leader, we all go on expeditions with a varying mix of nerves, hope and expectation. We never know what we will achieve and I certainly don’t expect a ‘world first’, but in the diminutive shape of the Hottentot buttonquail, that is exactly what this team has achieved. Who would have thought that was possible when you are just going away for a couple of weeks?

Be pleased, be proud and I look forward to being back next year.

Best wishes

Craig Turner
Expedition leader


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

With field science the devil is normally in the detail. We may be nearing the end of the expedition, but fieldwork continues apace. Entering the home straight, we still have to continue with camera trapping, mist netting, flush surveys and our programme of small mammal trapping has also commenced. As you may have realised by now, the small things in the fynbos really do matter, as part of understanding the bigger picture.

Assessing the small mammal fauna via the use of live (Sherman) traps enables us to better understand another part of the prey base for some of our resident predators. The various mice and shrew species in the area could form an important part of our feline predators’ diets.

However, we need to know what we have, where, and get a gauge on their relative numbers. Cue the need for yet more empirical science! The team set out 50 sherman traps up and over the ridge line of Signal Hill – so called as it is the nearest place to get a mobile phone signal. This not only gives a gradient of habitat types and aspects, it also means those craving a signal (Scott & Jim) are more than willing to climb the ridge – nothing like motivation!

Similar to our big mammal (leopard) trap, the small mammal traps are checked twice a day, and any captures are documented before being released. The trick is finding them again. The results blew our expectations, both in terms of numbers and variety in any single trapping session. The captures far exceeded those we achieved last year, but again focussed on Namaqua rock mice, striped field mice and Sengi (elephant shrew). Clearly there is still much to learn about the smaller fauna of this area of the fynbos.

The flush surveys are also proving useful for demonstrating the levels of diversity and abundance of other vertebrate (mammal and bird) species. As well as keeping our team relatively fit – you know when you have walked several kilometres through the fynbos. At least the teams get to ride out to the survey and/or collected courtesy of our Rangers from Ford South Africa.

With our final round of mist netting planned and camera trap collection still to complete, we are slowly beginning to pull together the results from the last couple of weeks. Suffice it to say that simple and well-tested techniques, combined with a bit of hard graft usually deliver results, adding more detailed ‘colour’ to our evolving scientific picture.


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.

From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/southafrica)

A key component of any expedition is focus. We focus on planning, fieldwork and research objectives, amongst many other things. We also focus on target species – often of the larger vertebrate variety.

But sometimes it is just as valuable to refocus, and not become blinkered by our obsession to find and document charismatic wildlife. Sunday saw an opportunity to do just this with a walking tour of local rock art sites, which was neatly combined with an evening presentation of the geology of our local landscape, by Chris Lee (Alan’s dad – a retired professional geologist). This of course gives us a wider focus, as we can marvel at the millions of years of geological history beneath our every step.

Marrying art and geologic science also helps give perspective on the historic people of this land, through the observation of ancient rock art, which seems to adorn every cave wall or rock overhang – showing people, antelopes and big cats. Clearly we are not alone in our interest in larger wildlife.

The start of the week also gave us an opportunity to appreciate the fynbos biome in another way. For we are not just blessed with two good cooks on this expedition; but Melda and Gurli are also great botanists. The fynbos may be a fire-driven ecosystem, but flower power prevails. There is no doubting we are working in a Floral Kingdom – the Cape Floral Kingdom to be precise.

We are surrounded by a wildflower wonderland. Whilst the lack of rain means the flowers may not be at their best, they are still ever present. There is always something in flower year round. And once you start looking at them, I mean really looking, in detail; they reveal all manner of shapes, sizes and colours.

Once you stop to look at the flowers and your immediate environment, you begin to discover a variety of other species, whether they are birds, insects or amphibians, and interactions between them. Observation of wildlife is such a simple pleasure but also vital for any fieldwork.

In many respects, flowers really do power the fynbos. Several small mammals (the subject of our trapping studies) are reliant on protea flowers for food. Many species of butterfly, moth and horseflies are specialised for extracting nectar from tubular flowers, and at the same time perform a pollination role. While orange-breasted sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds, which are endemic to the fynbos, not only act as pollinators, but the latter relies on proteas and pincushions for food and shelter. All of this is vital as it underpins the charismatic species that we seek.

So whilst our focus may be on Cape leopards, caracals and other target species, a broader understanding of our wider environment is key. After all the rocks and vegetation form the foundation of the fynbos on which our focal species depend.


From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa.